Get Your Thoughts Together: How to Organise a Workshop

If you’d asked me how I felt last Wednesday morning, I might have answered “shoot me.” That’s how nervous I was about leading my workshop, “Scribble Your Way to Success!” at UX Australia last Wednesday afternoon. It was the first workshop I’ve ever given for complete strangers, and the first time I’d ever tried to teach anyone to draw.

In an attempt to control the utter panic that overtook me at having committed to doing a workshop, and inspired by my friend Donna Spencer’s blog post, How I Draft an Information Architecture, I went back to a method I’ve often used in the past to organise my thoughts for a pitch presentation. I thought you might find it useful, so here it is.

What You’ll Need

Workshop Prep #1

It starts (as so many good things do) with a stack of index cards and two Sharpies, black and red. You’ll also need a large, flat surface where you can spread a large number of cards out and move them around. It might sound odd, but I recommend that you pick a surface that isn’t white, or if your surface is white, use cards that aren’t. This allows you to really see the structure you’ll be creating. I used to use a pinboard and pins for this, but it’s far quicker and easier to place and move the cards around on a horizontal surface.

Brain Dump

Workshop Prep #2

The first step is to get everything out of your head and onto cards. Take the stack of cards and your black Sharpie, write an idea on a card, and throw it onto the pile. Then another, then another, and so on. Only write one idea (rule of thumb: maximum 5 words) on each card, and don’t worry about penmanship or eloquence – you’re the only one that needs to understand these. Don’t worry about order, don’t worry about “getting it right”, don’t sort as you go – there will be time for all of that later. Just like popcorn, when your ideas stop popping, you’re done. Don’t fight to squeeze every idea out – as you move along, more will come. Pick the low-hanging fruit and move on.

Rough in Some Structure

Workshop Prep #3

Now that you’ve got a stack of ideas, start sorting them. First, flip through the stack quickly and make a few smaller stacks of ideas that go together. Now look at each of those stacks and sort them into some sort of order, as in “this idea leads to this ideas leads to…” Now take your sorted cards and lay them out on your table. We read top-to-bottom & left-to-right, so I tend to put “chapters” one after the other from the top, and within the chapters ideas build up from the left, as you can see in the photo above.

Get the Details In

Workshop Prep #4

Odds are that you got new ideas and noticed things missing (hrm, how do I get from that idea to there?) while laying your cards out. No problem, think a moment and add what you need at this point. If you can’t think of what you need right away, don’t get hung up on it – make a note in red, and move on. At this point you can also add chapter titles (in red in the photo above), timing (the stopwatch icons on the right of the photo), notes to yourself about possible imagery or diagrams, whatever.

Now step back and take it all in. Read through the cards from start to finish and note where the ideas flow, and where the holes are. Move chapters around and see if things flow better. If you want you can take the time to fill the holes now, although the point of this exercise is to get ideas & structure down quick.

Once you’re more or less satisfied, do what you need to move this structure into Powerpoint or Keynote. Take a photo to refer to, write down a hierarchical list, or bring your laptop over to the cards and whack in a slide with each card’s text, which is how I do it. Now the real fun begins – Powerpoint acrobatics! But that will have to wait for the next post…

What a Blast!

The Workshop Crew

Although I was terrified, the workshop seems by all accounts to have been a success, and I enjoyed it immensely! The nine remarkably nice participants made my day by kindly and obediently jumping through whatever hoops I put before them, and they remained creative, friendly and funny throughout. Thanks guys! More than one of them best possible feedback afterwards, “I never thought I could draw, but now I know I can.” And that was the whole point.

I enjoyed it all so much, I can’t wait to do it again! If you think you and your colleagues would benefit from breaking down the “I can’t draw” barrier to collaborate & communicate better, generate ideas faster & easier, and simply enjoy your work more, let’s talk.